- I Read It for You: On the Origin of Species (Introduction)
- I Read It for You: On the Origin of Species (Ch.1: Variation Under Domestication)
In celebration of Darwin in Malibu, which I’m directing at the Generic Theater in March, I am finally reading The Origin of Species and posting chapter-by-chapter summaries and commentary. This part covers the history of the book, plus its title page and introduction.
Part Zero: The Origin of the Origin of Species
Charles Darwin was a naturalist. He was on track to become a doctor, but he proved a rather squeamish medical student, and left medical school for Cambridge to become instead an Anglican priest. His father, a doctor, was disappointed enough by this to say, “You care for nothing but shooting, dogs and rat-catching, and you will be a disgrace to yourself and all your family.” While at Cambridge, he found his true calling: that of a naturalist, an all-around scientist of the natural world (and especially the creatures which inhabited it). “Naturalists” were the progenitors of modern biologists, and like so many very early men of science, the best of them became masters of many disciplines. Naturalists combined aspects of what we know today as biology, botany, entomology, taxonomy, chemistry, geology, and more.
Determined to make something of himself, Darwin signed on in 1831 as the resident naturalist and man of letters for the British survey ship H.M.S. Beagle, from which his published diaries later brought him both respect and popularity. What he saw and learned on that five-year journey of discovery would not only change the way he viewed the world and mankind’s place in it, but the way we all would. The discoveries he made, and the many experiments and further discoveries they later led him to, culminated over the following decades in a comprehensive framework of ideas about how species diverged from one another over long periods of time.
In Darwin’s own books and letters, he confides that he was disturbed by the implications of what he had found. A man who was once well along his way to being a priest had found, against his own training, against his religion, against popular belief, and even against his own wishes, that the species which existed today were not individually hand-created, but had become what they are slowly, by changing over generations and eons of geological time. Admitting these undeniable facts in the face of centuries of dogma was, in his own words, “like confessing a murder.” He could no longer believe in the literal creation myth of the Old Testament; however, unlike so many bizarre modern American evangelicals, he did not consider his ideas to be the enemy of religion, saying that even though he was now an agnostic himself, “It seems to me absurd to doubt that a man may be an ardent Theist & an evolutionist.”
Still, he knew trouble would result from making a claim which ran counter to Biblical creation myth, so he basically sat on his work for 25 years and procrastinated. He published in 1859 after a distant colleague, Alfred Russell Wallace, wrote to him asking his advice about this idea he had—an idea that was pretty much exactly the same as Darwin’s! Darwin knew he had to go public or his entire life’s work would get scooped. So he co-published a letter with Wallace, who was honored by the recognition, and followed it with a somewhat hastily-assembled book he called On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favored Races in the Struggle for Existence.
Darwin being already well known, the first edition sold out quickly and further editions followed. The work was met by some people with astonished acceptance (“How stupid of me not to have thought of that.”—Thomas Huxley) and by others with astonished offense (“The principle of natural selection is absolutely incompatible with the word of God. It contradicts the revealed relations of creation to its Creator.” —Bishop Samuel Wilberforce). There was reason for skepticism: unlike today, much of what Darwin surmised had at the time yet to be proven. His reasoning was brilliant, however, and most of his conclusions sound—his concept of evolution by natural selection became the foundation of all modern biology, and the source of many of the medical cures we now take for granted. Even Wilberforce himself (like both the Anglican and Catholic churches today) would undoubtedly have conceded Darwin was right had he lived another hundred years. A brilliant man in his own right, Wilberforce would probably be more offended by the scientific illiteracy of today’s creationists than he had originally been by Darwin.
The Title and Inscriptions
We begin our study of the book by examining the title. Usually shortened to The Origin of Species, the actual title is far more descriptive: On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favored Races in the Struggle for Existence. The title summarizes the book: life is a struggle to survive, and those organisms with an advantage survive better, thereby passing the advantage on to their offspring. In other words: critters that live have more babies that critters that don’t. That’s evolution, folks. The reason it sounds like such a no-brainer is that it is. It really is that simple.
Opposite the title page you see two inscriptions. The first (emphases added):
“But with regard to the material world, we can at least go so far as this— we can perceive that events are brought about not by insulated interpositions of Divine power, exerted in each particular case, but by the establishment of general laws.”
—W. Whewell: Bridgewater Treatise.
In selecting this quotation, Darwin shows he does not dismiss Divine interposition, just the claim that insulated instances of it explain every single case of a living creature. If the general laws of the world (such as evolution) were “established,” this implies an establisher—so the proposition Darwin implicitly endorses here in choosing this quotation is that God created the world and that science’s job is to discover the laws he made to govern it. The idea of Darwin being opposed to the idea of creationism is true, but the idea of Darwin being a deliberate enemy of religious belief is boneheaded. (He may have been, had it been safe to, but we can never know that—if we take him at his word he was definitely not.)
The second quote is:
“To conclude, therefore, let no man out of a weak conceit of sobriety, or an ill-applied moderation, think or maintain, that a man can search too far or be too well studied in the book of God’s word, or in the book of God’s works; divinity or philosophy; but rather let men endeavour an endless progress or proficience in both.”
—Bacon: Advancement of Learning
Down, Bromley, Kent, October 1st, 1859.
One could scarcely find a clearer endorsement of the compatibility of religion and science in Darwin’s mind. Let all those who claim that Darwin was and is an enemy of religion lay down their arms. In the one hand are God’s words (the Bible) and in the other God’s works (the natural world); it’s clear from Darwin’s own writing that to him the two are not and ought not be at war.
A Brief Introduction
I wanted to point out a couple of cool quotes from the Introduction:
“When on board H.M.S. ‘Beagle,’ as naturalist, I was much struck with certain facts in the distribution of the inhabitants of South America, and in the geological relations of the present to the past inhabitants of that continent. These facts seemed to me to throw some light on the origin of species—that mystery of mysteries, as it has been called by one of our greatest philosophers. On my return home, it occurred to me, in 1837, that something might perhaps be made out on this question by patiently accumulating and reflecting on all sorts of facts which could possibly have any bearing on it.”
The tone of the book is immediately set. This is an extremely thoughtful, deliberative man. A far cry from the screechy pundits on news channels. This was a time when intellect was admired.
“A fair result can be obtained only by fully stating and balancing the facts and arguments on both sides of each question; and this cannot possibly be here done.”
I quote this to show a trait I will repeatedly refer to in the chapter summaries to follow: intellectual honesty. Darwin demonstrates, as a trait clearly woven into every yard of his work, a fair and truthful approach to the evidence. He repeatedly admits where he is merely guessing, and never pretends to call such guesses fact. He knows that his work here is in its infancy, and rather than pretending to a certainty he has not earned, bends backwards to demonstrate where the data fall short and what has yet to be shown. Later in his life he succeeded in showing some of what was missing, and most of the rest has been filled in by those who followed after him. Had he been shown wrong, however, it is clear from his attitude here that like any honorable scientist, he would have been the first to admit it.
tl;dr: Darwin eventually came to consider himself an agnostic, but saw no inherent conflict between religion and evolution. The introduction sets a tone of humility which is followed throughout the book, and sets a goal of honest interpretation of the facts wherever they may lead.
Stay tuned for the next part, where I look at Chapter 1!